Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix Review
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 3Also available on Sony PlayStation 3
Simply put, the Kingdom Hearts series shouldn’t work. Take classic JRPG series Final Fantasy and synthesise it with the Disney universe, and you’d expect to get an awful mess. That, however, isn’t the case. Instead, the series is a peculiar triumph, an action-adventure experience as epic as it is fun. The latest release, Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix, has a bewildering array of addendums to its name but successfully brings together three former games in a superb remaster. Whether you’re a newcomer to the series or an old fan looking to recapture the magic, this is a collection to bring a smile to your face.
The first and primary game in the Remix is an HD remaster of Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix, which is itself an updated version of Kingdom Hearts II never before released outside of Japan. It continues the story of fifteen year-old Sora from the original Kingdom Hearts, chosen wielder of a magical weapon called the Keyblade. Accompanied by Donald Duck and Goofy, he sets out on a quest to reunite with his friends, defeat the monsters known as Heartless and Nobodies, foil the plans of the evil Organization XIII, and figure out why everyone keeps on mistaking him for the mysterious Roxas.
On his journey, he travels to many worlds, most of which are based on Disney films like Hercules, The Lion King, Steamboat Willie and Tron. This contributes to much of the game’s charm, and it’s difficult to grow tired of exploring its weird mashup universe. There are plenty of Final Fantasy characters to go around too, such as Auron, Vivi and Cloud Strife. Despite the seeming simplicity of the game’s darkness vs light plot – and all the expected cliché that comes with it – it’s still an engaging story, and a more powerful one than you might think.
While the universe is predominantly Disney, the gameplay owes much to the Final Fantasy series, despite opting for action over the traditional turn-based setup. Characters have MP to use magic, and the spells share their names with those from Final Fantasy. Sora levels up, earning experience as he defeats enemies, and can equip different weapons, accessories, and abilities. Party members – Donald and Goofy, who can be swapped out for guest characters depending on the world – can’t be controlled, but the AI is largely good enough that they behave sensibly.
For people who’ve played Kingdom Hearts II before, all of this will sound familiar – but keep in mind, this is the Final Mix version which comes with added content. There are new weapons and items, and a new “Drive Form” – a form Sora can change into to use special attacks – called the Limit Form. Cutscenes have been added, most of which show more of Organization XIII and their motives. At times they can bog the story down, but it’s still welcome to see more of the enigmatic order. There are extra side bosses as well, mostly Organization members like Marluxia and Larxene who were eliminated in Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, and the fight between Sora and Roxas at Memory’s Skyscraper is now playable rather than just a cutscene.
What the actual remaster of the Final Mix does is basically update it to HD. The textures and animations are all smooth and crisp, and despite the years since its original release, the game looks pretty good. The FMV sequences can go a little fuzzy around the edges, and distant elements in the environments look very basic indeed – but these are small issues and unlikely to impact your overall enjoyment too much.
Even better, large parts of Yoko Shimomura’s brilliant score have been rerecorded. The difference is more noticeable in some pieces than others, with the upgrade most obvious in battle sequences; tracks like “The 13th Struggle” are finally given the instrumentation they deserve. Perhaps the best of the bunch, however, is the heart-breaking “The Other Promise”, which is gorgeously orchestrated to give it a grand, filmic quality. There’s also fun new music for the Christmas Town area – from the world based on The Nightmare Before Christmas – along with Christmas-based outfits for Sora, Donald and Goofy.
All in all, this HD version of Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix is a real triumph. It feels like the sharpest, tightest version of the game yet; the brilliance is in the details, and it has the aura of a game made with a lot of love. It looks and sounds better than ever before, and there’s plenty of new content to sink your teeth into. Depending on how much extra material you decide to tackle, it will be a good twenty-five to thirty hours before you put Organization XIII away for good and can move on to the next game in the collection. That game is the series prequel, Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep – or more specifically, an HD remaster of the Final Mix version.
Originally released for the PlayStation Portable, Birth by Sleep follows the story of three young Keyblade wielders called Terra, Ventus and Aqua, and charts the battles leading to the events of the original Kingdom Hearts. It was the best instalment outside the main series when first released, and that certainly still holds true. It’s more than worthwhile spending your time on, and is an absolute must for fans of the series looking to fill in the story.
At the start of the game, you’ll pick one of the three protagonists and play through their story – but as each of them visits different places and experiences different things, it’s never complete until you’ve played all three. Each storyline takes a good eight to ten hours to complete, thereby giving you another twenty-five to thirty hours total to get involved in – or even double that, depending on how much extra material you take on. It’s an interesting narrative structure, too, seeing things pan out from each character’s viewpoint; sometimes you won’t understand the full ramifications of an event until you’ve experienced it a different way.
Birth by Sleep also introduces new worlds – based on such films as Sleeping Beauty and Lilo and Stitch – and brand new mechanics to the battle system. For example, in order to use skills, you have to add them to your “deck”, which you can then scroll through at will. Use a skill enough and you will “master” it, thereby allowing you to synthesise it with other skills in order to generate new ones. Furthermore, you can throw in additional materials to give that skill an added ability, like HP Boost or Combo Boost; master the new skill, and you gain the ability permanently. It’s a somewhat confusing procedure when first encountered, and it takes a while to get the hang of it – but once you do, it holds quite a bit of depth and scope for experimentation.
The gameplay of Birth by Sleep feels more experimental than a main instalment – it keeps the core elements but builds alternative systems around them – but still holds up well. It helps that each protagonist has a different play style, giving plenty of variation; Terra is strong but slow, Ventus is quick, and Aqua is magic-based. Even so, it does feel slightly less polished than Kingdom Hearts II. That’s not to say that it’s bad; it just isn’t quite as good.
It isn’t as accomplished as its big brother in terms of presentation, either. The worlds tend to be smaller and simpler, and they aren’t as detailed either. The quality of the music isn’t as high, and hasn’t been given the same thorough reworking. Much of the difference is likely due to its origins as a PSP game, and having therefore been designed for a smaller screen and poorer quality speakers. Again, it’s not at all bad – in fact, it’s quite good – but the problem is that you’ll likely have played Kingdom Hearts II first, and the comparison isn’t a flattering one for Birth by Sleep. A little more spit and polish could have brought it up to a higher standard and prevented this, and it’s a shame that such a good game is made to seem inferior – even if only very slightly.
For European gamers, the fact that this is the Final Mix version won’t be particularly obvious. There’s not a great deal which is new; swapped colour palettes for enemies, a new Keyblade, some extra abilities. In terms of playable content, there are a few new tournaments you can enter in the Mirage Arena, but the bosses added in the Japanese release were already available in the original English version. The most important addition is a new playable section to the secret ending, which better sets things up for future games.
Of course, these criticisms may make Birth by Sleep seem lacklustre, but it truly isn’t. It’s a great game with an excellent story, engaging gameplay, and all the usual Kingdom Hearts fun. The problem is that it has a big jump to make from PlayStation Portable to PlayStation 3, and when it gets there it’s lined up next to a superlative game like Kingdom Hearts II. It stands in the shadow of the best game in the series, and suffers because of it. Even so, it is superb in itself and is wonderful to experience on a big screen.
The third and final game in the collection is Kingdom Hearts Re:coded, which was itself a Nintendo DS remake of a game originally released episodically for mobile phones. Whichever format it was originally played in, it was always the weakest game in the series, being perfectly serviceable but far from stellar. This is a trend which continues in the Remix, where it is recreated as a “cinematic retelling” – effectively, a collection of cutscenes with all gameplay elements removed. This allows you to experience the story without playing the game through, reducing it to little more than a movie with DS standard graphics and some occasional text to scroll through.
It’s debatable whether or not this is a good thing. On the one hand, it would have been nice to give Re:coded another chance, and with some upgrades it could have been made to work as a decent little game on the PS3. Furthermore, the narrative isn’t really strong enough to stand on its own without any gameplay. On the other hand, it was, as mentioned, the weakest entry in the series and involved certain sections that were downright unenjoyable. The gameplay was classic Kingdom Hearts but was watered down and tepid; to miss it out isn’t to miss much at all.
Presented cinematically, Re:coded can be experienced in brief. It won’t take longer than a few hours to get through it, rather than the fifteen or so the original release required. The story is less vital than any other and has little extra to reveal about the Kingdom Hearts universe, but you’ll still be able to watch all the most important plot details first hand. For fans of the series looking for that completionist edge, it’s a nice touch, especially given the inclusion of some new scenes; the more casual gamer must decide whether to spend their hours watching it, or skip it and just read the synopsis on Wikipedia.
Looking at the collection as a whole, there are plenty of reasons that make it worthwhile picking up. It’s important to remember that the Kingdom Hearts series is unusual in that the spinoff games outnumber the main instalments, and by a ratio of more than two to one. These seven games have also been spread across five different platforms – the PS2, PSP, Nintendo DS, 3DS, and Game Boy Advance – and that makes following the series not only difficult but costly as well. In conjunction with the 1.5 Remix, which brought together the original Kingdom Hearts, Re:Chain of Memories and 358/2 Days, this collection allows fans to gather most of the series together in one place. Dream Drop Distance is still conspicuously absent – and dangerously so, given that it sets things up for Kingdom Hearts III – but the usefulness of the two collections cannot be denied.
Ultimately, that’s what Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix is all about. It’s about taking three games, each originally released on a different platform, and bringing them together for the first time. It achieves this with considerable aplomb. Kingdom Hearts II and Birth by Sleep are two of the best games in the series, and these HD Final Mix versions feel like their definitive editions. Between them there’s fifty to sixty hours of gameplay at least, not to mention a cornucopia of extra content. Re:coded is less vital to the collection but acts as a nice bonus, and ardent fans of the series will be glad to see it. With Kingdom Hearts III finally announced – and only nine years after the second game! – there can be no better way to celebrate and ready yourself for it than by picking up a copy of this masterful Remix.